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Irish: The Language of Ireland

Posted by Kirsten Fedorowicz on

Kirsten Fedorowicz studied abroad in Ireland in January-May 2017. She now works as a Content Writer for Biddy Murphy.

When I arrived in Ireland for my study abroad tenure, I was surprised to see two languages appear on all of the street signs. As we road on our bus through western Ireland on that first day, I noticed how different the street signs were from my native Michigan. On each sign we passed, the English name for something- a town, the airport, the nearest exit- appeared below another language, which I soon learned was Irish.... A language I didn’t know existed.

I knew people in Ireland spoke English, so I never really thought about the existence of another, native language. The Irish language has a long storied history that soon captured my imagination.

Irish is an ancient language, with some estimations putting its earliest roots about 2,500 years ago. Scholars think that Irish was spoken all throughout Ireland, giving the people of the Emerald Isle a common language that eventually was used for religious practices and poetry. Variations of the Celtic language also spread to Scotland, the Isle of Mann, and parts of England. The earliest written record historians have of the Irish language is on the Ogham Stones of the fifth and sixth centuries. Ogham was the way to write early Irish, a series of slashes and lines that operated in place of the Latin alphabet that would be adopted much later. Biddy Murphy sells products from Ogham Wishes, a craft organization that creates hand painted pictures of Ogham letters. A beautiful and accurate picture of early Irish writing!

Starting in the 1600s, as the neighboring England started gaining more power, the English language became necessary for communicating in trade and legal matters. Combined with the England’s physical conquering of Ireland, the English language began to be spread through Ireland. The influence spread from the east, which was closer to England, to the west. The western parts of Ireland retained a deeper connection to the language, which is why some regions today are part of the Gaeltacht, or places where the Irish language is still spoken. In the late 1800s, the Irish language was no longer commonly spoken in most of Ireland, and a cultural movement was started to preserve the language and the cultural importance that surrounded it.

Today, the Irish language is far from dead. One of the most noticeable things, as an American visiting Ireland, was the use of Irish words in slang. When someone first asked me “what’s the craic?” I responded the same way most native English speakers would; with absolute confusion. Craic is an Irish word that has come to mean “what’s up?” or “what’s fun?” Another famous word is “Slainte,” which is the Irish word for “cheers” or “good health.” In the pub, it was common to clink your glasses together and say “slainte!” This cheerful phrase appears on many Irish goods, such as this Slainte wall hanging!

I was also lucky enough to see the education of Irish language in action. I had an internship with an afterschool program, and would go into the classrooms to interact with the kids. Often, I would see their Irish homework hanging in the classroom, posters entirely in the language. All children are required to learn the Irish language in schools as an attempt to revive and preserve the language. From my perspective, it looked like the Irish language was making a comeback, at least culturally. The women I worked with at my internship, all in their forties, had anglicized names like Christine and Mary. The kids I worked with had mostly traditional Irish names like Aoife and Caomhill. The Irish language is still present in Ireland, even if it isn’t spoken everyday for most Irish people.

There are a few Irish phrases that strike me as particularly beautiful. Walking off the plane in the Shannon airport my first day in Ireland, I was surrounded by signs that read “Cead Mile Failte,” which means “A hundred thousand welcomes.” Even though I didn’t know what the words meant (remember, I didn’t even realize that Irish was a language at the time!), there was something comforting about the phrase. There is something beautiful and rich about the Irish language, and Cead Mile Failte sounds exactly like Irish hospitality feels. The phrase makes a great way to welcome guests, and this key ring hanger is the perfect way to do it!

I also love the phrase “Mo Anam Cara,” which means “my soul mate.” I think it’s a romantic phrase, and sounds soft and gentle when you say it out loud. Jewelry that reads “Mo Anam Cara” makes a stunning gift for a birthday or anniversary for a loved one.

The Irish language, even if no longer commonly spoken in the country, is an important part of the cultural history. By preserving the language in signs, slang, and children’s names, the Irish language still has a place in the heart of the Emerald Isle!

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  • I love learning about the Irish language. I have one suggestion and that is after printing the Irish word could you put in ( ) the pronunciation of that Gaelic word. That would be terrific. It’s a difficult language to master, but with the phonetic pronunciations, that would make it easier to say and master. Thank you.

    K. Coppola on
  • An bhfuil Gaeilge agat? Táimíd ag foghlaim sa rang gach tráthnóna Luain i Cedar Rapids Iowa! Irish is alive and growing!

    Mark McQuade on

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